Tra­di­tion in an Untra­di­tion­al Age

  • Review
By – July 8, 2024

First pub­lished in 1990 and reprint­ed by Mag­gid Books in 2023, Rab­bi Jonathan Sacks’s Tra­di­tion in an Untra­di­tion­al Age is a col­lec­tion of essays that cov­ers a broad range of top­ics. It fea­tures the think­ing of some of modernity’s great Jew­ish thought leaders.

These fif­teen essays are divid­ed into three sub­sec­tions. The first, titled Respons­es to Moder­ni­ty,” includes six essays on the birth and evo­lu­tion of Mod­ern Ortho­doxy. After devot­ing four chap­ters to the lega­cies of Rab­bis Sam­son Raphael Hirsch, Moses Sofer, Abra­ham Isaac Kook, and Joseph Soloveitchik, Rab­bi Sacks offers two essays that describe his own con­sid­er­a­tions about this top­ic. The essay titled An Agen­da of Future Jew­ish Thought” encour­ages Mod­ern Ortho­doxy to rein­vest in Jew­ish uni­ty and active­ly seek to repair the rifts that have erupt­ed between tra­di­tion­al Jew­ry and the sec­u­lar and non-Ortho­dox Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties. Rab­bi Sacks warns the Mod­ern Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty that it can­not with­draw into seg­re­ga­tion with­out abdi­cat­ing the respon­si­bil­i­ties of reli­gious leadership.” 

The sec­ond sec­tion, titled Top­ics,” includes five essays on diverse sub­jects like the Holo­caust, Jew­ish-Chris­t­ian rela­tions, com­bat­ing pover­ty, and repen­tance. In one essay, Jew­ish-Chris­t­ian Dia­logue: The Eth­i­cal Dimen­sion,” Rab­bi Sacks speaks of the need to engage in a sub­stan­tive inter­faith con­ver­sa­tion that embraces plu­ral­ism while still main­tain­ing its unique reli­gious per­spec­tive. This helps to min­i­mize reli­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism and allows us to face the ques­tions, Can we live togeth­er? Can we learn from one another?”

The third sec­tion, Thinkers,” explores the thought of Mar­tin Buber, Franz Rosensweig, and Joseph Soloveitchik. Sacks is crit­i­cal of Buber, call­ing him a the­olo­gian of Jew­ish sec­u­lar­ism” who sep­a­rates halacha (Jew­ish law and prac­tice) from the encounter between G‑d and human­i­ty. In con­trast, the final two chap­ters review the phi­los­o­phy of Rab­bi Joseph Soloveitchik and the impor­tance of halacha.

These essays were all writ­ten pri­or to 1991, when Rab­bi Sacks accept­ed the posi­tion of Chief Rab­bi of the Unit­ed Hebrew Con­gre­ga­tions of the Com­mon­wealth and his rep­u­ta­tion as a reli­gious leader began to come into focus. Here, he intro­duces themes that con­tin­ue to take shape in his more uni­ver­sal­ly rec­og­nized books, includ­ing Moral­i­ty, To Heal a Frac­tured World, and Not in God’s Name. While this col­lec­tion is more aca­d­e­m­ic in nature, it is acces­si­ble to an edu­cat­ed read­er, and it serves as a mile­stone in the devel­op­ment of Rab­bi Sacks’s Jew­ish thought and his artic­u­la­tion of Judaism’s pur­pose in the mod­ern age.

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions